Leveraging Drones to Increase Safety and Productivity

Hugo Vasquez, Deputy CIO, The AES Corporation
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Hugo Vasquez, Deputy CIO, The AES Corporation

Imagine you need to inspect and possibly repair a large and critical electrical wire. There are hospitals, businesses and households depending on your work. Now imagine that a wire is suspended 120 feet up in the air and you are teetering next to it in a small bucket at the end of a long, articulated boom crane. By the way, thousands of volts of electricity are pulsating through the wire.

Routine inspection and maintenance for power companies is anything but a routine. Given the size, positioning and force of electricity producing and distributing assets, many interactions with them are by definition hazardous. Inspecting and monitoring far-flung assets like wind turbines, hydroelectric dams and reservoirs, power plants, and thousands of miles of overhead power transmission lines is a challenging, yet vital task. Electricity is the backbone of modern industrial society. When storms and maintenance cause unplanned outages, minutes matter and entire cities can be impacted.

AES is one of the largest providers of electricity in the world, providing power to tens of millions of people in 18 countries. AES’ mission is to be the world’s leading sustainable power company that safely provides reliable and affordable energy. We also strive do so in a way that abides by our values. First among these values is safety—for our people, contractors and communities.

Frequent inspection of assets enables us to proactively identify issues or defects before they become a significant risk to our operations or to the reliability of the power it produces. Traditionally, these tasks have called for our skilled technicians to work under dangerous conditions, rappelling down structures, scaling up temporary scaffolding or working from suspended platforms. Challenges like these have driven AES to look for 21st century solutions to take our people out of dangerous situations.

AES has pioneered approaches to inspection using remotely piloted aircraft systems, commonly known as drones. Inspection using drones reduces the need for our people to work at height and minimizes their risk of exposure to high voltage electricity. These significantly safer inspections, when performed by professional operators using commercial-grade drones, have also enabled proactive maintenance by more quickly, more accurately, and more comprehensively identifying repairable issues before they become operational or safety concerns.

We have successfully leveraged drones and advanced robotics at more than 60 of our locations and across seven strategic use cases, leading to the avoidance of more than 1,000 hours of hazardous work.

“Inspection using drones and robotics improves safety by reducing the need for our people to work at height and minimizing exposure to high voltage electricity.”

Our use of drones has also proven beneficial in a variety of other applications such as environmental monitoring and measurement of fuel stockpiles for production-flow optimization. These initiatives have helped us define our strategic roadmap for deploying emerging and innovative technologies across our portfolio to efficiently monitor and manage assets without compromising safety.

The AES Buffalo Gap wind farm in Texas uses drones to perform inspection of wind turbine blades. For its hundreds of wind turbines, each blade must be inspected at least once a year during their average 20-year lifespan, with greater frequency during the first year of operation to evaluate manufacturing defects, and after severe weather events and lightning strikes. Performing routine turbine blade inspection using a drone (a remotely controlled helicopter, in this case) has shown to significantly reduce hours of hazardous work, reduce expenses related to conventional methods that involve hoisting technicians at height, and provide higher-quality imagery than ground-based methods involving telephoto scopes.

In Brazil, AES Tietê created a specialized reservoir management department, which uses long-range fixed-wing drones (remotely controlled airplanes, in this case) along with underwater bathymetry, satellite imagery, LIDAR, and GIS software to achieve comprehensive monitoring and cataloging of its reservoir assets. Comparative analysis of image and topological data over time enables AES people to detect and quickly respond to issues and irregularities such as land erosion, invasive plants, sedimentation, and human occupation. AES further uses these integrated technologies to monitor the surrounding environment, which allows for methodological reforestation, management of ecological balance, and our continual efforts to preserve endangered species.

Looking ahead, we see many opportunities, ranging from improved software capabilities to process and analyze the data captured by drones, better automation and user interfaces, and improved sensors with the resolution to discover critical defects as small as a hairline crack. As we seek to provide the energy and infrastructure solutions our customers truly need, AES will continue to be a pioneer in the adoption of these emerging technologies to increase safety and productivity.

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